The lawyers defending a so-called “independent” Star Trek fan-film are trying to pull of what could certainly be the biggest upset in judicial history if they can convince a federal court judge to remove the words “Star Trek” from a lawsuit about, well, Star Trek.
Erin Ranahan, who represents Axanar Productions and its principal Alec Peters, made the demand last month, saying that invoking the Star Trek name would not only turn a copyright infringement case into a trademark infringement case, but it would also confuse a jury.
Lawyers for CBS Studios and Paramount Pictures Inc., which sued Axanar and Peters in December 2015 for copyright infringement, shot back, calling Ranahan’s demand “absurd.”
“This is a copyright case, and defendants have denied copying Star Trek in order to create Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar and Star Trek: Axanar. The fact that defendants (prior to the filing of this lawsuit) heavily used the term ‘Star trek’ in their works, in their promotional materials, and in every one of their discussions regarding the content of their works, is highly relevant to whether or not defendants intended to copy, and did copy, plaintiffs’ works, and whether they were intended to be, and are in fact substantially similar, to plaintiffs’ works.”
In her filing last month, Ranahan called the plan by lawyers for CBS and Paramount to use the term “Star Trek” would only “color, cloud and confuse the views of the court and the jury in this case.” She admonished the attorneys for “repeatedly” referring to the Axanar productions as Star Trek: Axanar and Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar, despite the fact Axanar had used those names up until right before the suit was filed.
In fact, those names were in use when Axanar raised a reported $1.4 million through crowdfunding that was later used, according to court documents, to build a commercial film studio outside of Los Angeles, and provide salaries and other personal expenses for Peters and select members of his production staff.
The lawyers for Paramount and CBS also pointed out that Peters himself used an email address that ended in “@startrekaxanar.com,” as well as a Twitter account that is handled @StarTrekAxanar.
“Defendants have more recently renamed the Axanar works to exclude ‘Star Trek,’ but that fact does not erase defendants’ prior conduct, or render defendants’ previous statements and conduct inadmissible for this trial. Far from it, defendants’ use of the terms ‘Star Trek’ (deliberately and repeatedly) is critical to this trial.”
The judge in the case could rule on this motion and others filed by both sides in an effort to exclude evidence as early as this week.
A jury trial is set to begin Jan. 31 with Paramount and CBS already boasting a major advantage. Judge R. Gary Klausner previously gutted Axanar’s core defense claiming fair use of copyrighted materials, and left only two things for the jury to decide: Did Axanar substantially copy Star Trek for its proposed fan-films, and if so, was Peters’ copying “willful”?
A yes on the first part would open Axanar up to potentially significant damages – including a maximum of $150,000 per infringement and actual damages. However, those damages could be limited if a jury decides Peters’ conduct was not willful.
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